The extraordinary wartime recollections of ordinary Canadians

October 1 1974


The extraordinary wartime recollections of ordinary Canadians

October 1 1974


The extraordinary wartime recollections of ordinary Canadians

A GOOD WAR: It browns me off that our kids don't know what went on, and they don't realize they are living today like they do, and their kids will live tomorrow like they will, because of what you and I and my sister and my old man and my mother and yours did in the war. It doesn’t matter if you were in Italy or Prince Albert. Saskatchewan.

It was a good war. I’m not talking about a good war from the standpoint of high moral purpose. If going out and killing millions of Krauts to get Hitler off his goddamned pedestal is a high moral purpose, then I’m all for it.

But it was a good war for Canada, too. because it made us a great nation. I mean, hell, it showed us what we could do. We just weren’t a bunch of wheat farmers and Nova Scotia fishermen and lumbermen in BC. We were a nation. A big, tough, strong nation.

And another thing. Listen to this. If you take the terror and the horror and the death and destruction out of it, it was a good war. It was a party. I enjoyed myself. I'll never have so much fun again in my life. I mean it. Ask anybody. It was a good war.

MY BROTHER: When the word came, the telegram that my brother had been killed in action, my father read it to us because we were all in the kitchen at the time, and then he walked out of the house and my mother said to me, “You follow him.” He went down to the river where there are these high banks, and he just sat there all morning and afternoon looking across the river, and I sat about 100 feet behind him on a little hill and he never knew I was there. About five o’clock he got up and walked toward me, and when he got to me he sort of just stood there, and then he held me close and he gave a sob, just one big convulsive sob, a sort of great heave, and that was it.

We walked back to the house and Mother could see us coming across the field and she had made tea and toast and honey and we sat down and ate and said nothing and Dad went to bed.

A week later the minister drove out and he asked my father if he wanted a memorial service. Some people had them. My father made this kind of a motion, like his hand going across from side to side, saying no. and my mother said thank you for coming.

In that house until I went away when I was 17 to commercial college in Saskatoon, my brother’s name was never mentioned. His air force graduation picture. Mom kept it on the mantel and that was all. It was as if Barney had never existed. Later, after my other brother Lloyd joined the navy and went away. Mom took down Barney’s picture and put it away in their room and she put up instead one of those satin pillows saying THE ROCKIES which you can buy in souvenir shops in Banff.

After the war Mom came to visit me in Saskatoon after I got married. We were talking and she broke down and started to cry and she said. “Dad won’t talk about him, he just won’t say a thing, and I haven’t the courage to take his picture out of the drawer and you know, Kitty, I can’t even remember his face any more. I can’t even remember him as a little boy or playing hockey for the town or in his air force graduation.”

Isn’t it terrible, a mother's love?

I REMEMBER THE SONGS: Oh my, yes, those years. I remember the songs. My. but there were some good songs then. The wai seemed to bring out the very best in songwriters, you know. I don’t know why. How often, how many times do I still hear myself singing those songs. I can’t say I remember the words. That part seem to have gone from me, but I'll be sitting knitting or doing the dishes or just sitting and my head will just fill up. just come alive with songs. Those tunes, you know.

Oh, some of them. The White 'Cliffs Of Dover. There'll he hlctehirds over the white cliffs,of Dover . . . that one. A Nightingale Sant In Berkeley Square. Roll Out The Barrel. That’s a famous one Ferry Boat Serenade. Rum And Coca-Cola. We're Going To Ham. Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line . . . although that ont wasn’t so hot. It seems to me there were hundreds.

Nothing on earth brings back those days better than the music Not the movies or the radio. Jack Benny and Fred Allen. None of that. It was the songs.

ONE HELL OF AN OLD GAL: We went overseas in July, I think of ’42. just a bunch of air force guys in a troopship loaded witi army guys. Anyway, on the dock there were a few women and the} had baskets and they were passing out apples, little bags of thing: like hardrock candy, razor blades, maybe an orange, socks, al these kinds of things. They were just ladies of the town, Halifax and somebody said they weren't really supposed to be there, bitu nobody actually turned them away. They’d say, “Good luck, sol dier,” or “Cheerio, airman,” and one old lady said to me, “Be sun and write your mother.” I always remembered that because wasn’t much of a letter writer.

Okay, it’s four years later. November, 1945. another troopship We came off the gangplank and there is ambulances for some o the guys who need them, but mostly it’s just us, thinner, maybç, r bit wiser, and I’ll be damned but if there isn’t this same old lad} and she says as we pass by, she says as she hands me an orange anc the Halifax paper, she says, “Did you write your mother, son?” ant I nearly dropped dead. I think, did she remember me? No, becatfs I hear her say it to a guy about two back in the line.

And you know what, that old biddy must have been doing tha job. rain or shine, mostly rain. I'll bet. passing out little goodies ant asking the guys if they would please write to their mothers. Ont hell of an old gal. Year after year. Somebody should have pinned t medafon those old gals. Maybe somebody did.

THE WAR BRIDES: Oh, the war brides. Oh, yes, I remembe them. They’d be landed off the boats in Montreal and the Ret Cross Corps would take them to Toronto and then pass them on tc Winnipeg, those who were left, and then to Calgary or Edmonfor where we’d meet them and bring them to Vancouver.

Some were terrified. They were a jolly bunch and laughing, ant they’d been through a lot. a lot of adversity, rationing, bombing but as they got closer to Vancouver some would come up to me and say, “Do you think I'll know him?” and I’d say sure, you’ll know him and she’d say, “But I only knew him for a week or six weeks.

and then he came home wounded and that's the last I’ve seen of him. Do you think he’ll be in uniform so I’ll know' him?” I’d have to say no. he probably wouldn’t be in uniform, but he’d know her. That used to cheer them up. And. you know, there always was snmebody to meet them and they’d all find their husbands.

But the night before. Oh, the excitement! Some of them had babies, little children, and there was always one nurse with them, an RN. and two of us Red Cross Corps for every three cars of girls and they’d be asking us hundreds of questions, and the night before we got to Vancouver the porters would bring in big tubs of hot water and everybody w'ould bathe. They’d do each other’s hair. They’d laugh and joke and sing, but you could see they were terrifield, a lot of them. Some were very nervous.

And some were led on, very badly, you know. Soldiers telling the girls their parents were wealthy and when they’d tell me where drey were going, showing me the addresses, my heart used to sink. Down on East Hastings, down in there, on the Skid Road, and I used to think how terrible the shock was going to be. But they came through it, most of them. Some of them went home, of course. But I never saw one girl. I don’t think, who on the train wasn’t prepared to be a good wife and to give her husband a good life. It’s just that for some it didn’t work out. But by and large, I think everything worked out pretty well.

THE COMRADESHIP OF IT ALL: There is one thing that stands out. I don’t know if I should use a German expression, but it says it best — Kameradschaft. That means comradeship.

I found more enjoyment in good friends, men I’d knowm for two or three years or more, whether it be during assaults and perhaps they never came back, or just in training and on leaves, and the men had to come together and be together and appreciate and respect and honor one another, and this is what kept it all together. It was in some wmys a spiritual thing.

Canada was very, very tar away and getting iurtner an tne time, and if you were going to die, you weren’t going to die with your loved ones around your bedside. You were going to die in action, in battle beside some fellow who had been your friend for tw'o or mree years. You dealt with every kind of men, in civilian life they were good men and they were bad men, they were accountants and they w'ere thieves, but when war brought us all together, we were one. Didn't Shakespeare say it pretty well when Henry’s men were before the French lines at the Battle of Agincourt. He said. “This happy breed of men.” I don’t think he used “happy” in that sense, but he used it as men who know and understand and respect and love each other, and will die for each other. That’s what he meant.

No, I think Kameradschaft is a good word, a warm word, and I mink it takes it all in. The comradeship of it all.

WHY: When he was younger my son asked me once: “Daddy, why did you fly those bombers with bombs over Germany if you knew you were going to get killed?”

I sat talking with him for a while and said things like patriotism and our country and that Germany was the aggressor, that Germany stood for wrong and we stood for right, and when I’d gone around the whole circle I suddenly realized that I couldn’t answer him. Maybe to his satisfaction, because I don’t think the little shaver cared all that much, but I sure couldn't answer the question to my satisfaction.

VICTORY GARDENS: Victory Gardens got to be a laugh, but I guess a lot of people found they had green thumbs they didn’t Know they had. You remember, the government said grow your uwn vegetables. This must have been about 1941 and it caught on like the hula hoop, take-out Chinese food or, oh. any one of those things that catch people. It was a fad, I guess.

Parts of the city, west Edmonton I'm talking about, had dozens ind dozens of vacant lots, and soon there were families out there with spades and forks digging away and having a whale of a time, some people would take one or two lots and others just a plot. The lewspapers printed diagrams on how to lay out the garden and Kivanis clubs and such gave prizes for the best garden, the biggest

pumpkin, the best-looking bowl of radish, things like that, and it was like the city was going back to the old-time country fair.

A lot of city people were country people but they must have forgotten just how much a big city lot would grow, radish, lettuce, beans, corn. peas, potatoes, squash, pumpkins, swiss chard — and another thing they must have forgot was how much work it took. My lands, you’d see people out until dark, down on their knees weeding and pulling weeds, and it got so that anybody with half an eye could tell what was going to happen.

That’s right, the horn of plenty overflowed all that summer and fall. You’d be sitting next to somebody on the streetcar in from Jasper Place and you'd ask him if he wanted some free vegetables and he'd laugh. He could give you twice what you could give him.

THE BRAVEST MAN IN CANADA: I don't care what you say, the bravest man in Canada in the last war, and I’m talking about your heroes too, was old J. S. Woodsworth. Remember him? That little spade beard, and looking like a country preacher. He was a Member of Parliament and a socialist and the head of the CCE (now the New Democratic Party), and when Canada declared war on the Axis powers he w'as the only man to stand up and vote no.

He thought war was wrong, w'as evil, and it w'as in dire contradiction to his principles and it w'as wrong for Canada, and he voted no. The rest of his party voted yes. and they did so because I think they figured, some of them, that to vote yes was the political thing to do. But old Woodsworth, and 1 do believe he was a minister at that, he voted no. the only MP to vote no.

Looking back on it all now, you could see that he was wrong. Not wrong that war is a wicked thing, but wrong that Canada should stay out of it. We couldn’t have stayed out. Unthinkable.

I remember at the time my father saying. “Well, a big country like this should be able to afford one good man of honor.”

THE KITCHENER TOE: As long as I live I’ll never forget what I called The Great Kitchener Toe Controversy. It was a way of knitting socks for soldiers, just so. The Kitchener Toe Method.

I’ve got these two old biddie aunts and Uncle Bert, a coal miner. They’d knit, all three of them. Aunt Annie. Aunt Bessie and Uncle Bert; they'd knitted for years. Nobody could tell them about knitting, so when the wool and' the instructions came from the Red Cross they just ignored the details. Just went ahead.

And then it happened. I think Aunt Bessie had about 10 pairs sent back. No Kitchener Toe. Aunt Annie maybe 10 pairs. With a little note, a firm little note. Rip them out and do them over. Well, by God, war was declared.

And it went on and on. They wrote letters to the editor in the papers. They phoned their Member of Parliament. They roared, and there’s mild old Uncle Bert roaring the hardest. What’s this country coming to? That sort of thing. There were articles in the paper and people got talking about the Kitchener Toe.

It was quite a fight and went on and on, mutter, mutter, anger, and the Red Cross wouldn’t budge an inch and finally after a few months it all died down because people got tired of such foolishness, and the old biddies decided that if they were to win the war they’d better do it the right way. But for a time there it was sure hot and heavy, the fur flying, and all these old ladies insulted as hell at some little snippet of a Red Cross girl daring to reject their masterpieces. Yeah, war is hell, ain’t it?

EMERGENCY RATIONS: My brother was in the army and somehow he and about eight other fellows wound up on an island somewhere up near Alaska watching for Japanese submarines or something. It was a useless existence because there was nothing they could have done anyway, and their radio never worked.

There was supposed to be a parachute drop every two weeks. But this time there was no air drop, and when the next one was due, nothing happened. The poor kids were getting desperate, but they did some fishing with dynamite and kept going that way.

Finally one morning a plane came over and flew low along the beach. This box tumbled out, and when they got to it they could see that it wasn’t food, not even emergency rations. Do you want to

guess what the plane dropped? All right, hold yourself. It was a carton of applications for Canada w'ar bonds. Victory bonds, which the guys were supposed to fill out and send back.

BEING THE GOOD WIFE: My husband was a Saturday Night soldier, the militia, and he couldn't wait for the war and when it started, zoom, he was called up and then he was happy.

When he was going overseas he brought me home to this town where his mother was and he never introduced me to anybody and there w'as no women’s auxiliary or anything where a woman could work, and his mother, where I lived, she never introduced me to anybody and there I was with my baby daughter and there I stayed. Looking at four walls when I wasn’t in the war plant.

Sure. I could have gone out partying. It was one long party anvway. but I guess it was my strict upbringing that a woman didn’t go out with strange men. and my mother-in-law sure wouldn’t be having anything like that going on under her roof, and the neighborhood too. If you went out and your husband was overseas, then the neighbors would talk and talk and point at you in the streets and you were some kind of lowest of the low'. You just worked your shift and came home and looked after the baby.

I’m not bitter. I guess I could be' I know that when my husband was overseas it was just one long party. He used to write and say he was going on leave and he always seemed to be going on leave, but I stayed home and did what I was supposed to do. Be the good wife. I know, oh sure, hundreds of women didn’t. Thousands of women didn’t. Lots of women I knew didn’t. And maybe I should have too. Maybe I would actually have been a better person for it. had some fun. But there were too many pressures on me. Now. I wish I’d gone out and had some fun.

EOURTEEN-AND-A-HAEF: When I join up I’m \4l/i and when I get discharged I am one month under 18. I had forged papers and I knew' the score. I had to, you see, I hit a priest. I’m in this seminary in Montreal and this priest is a bad guy and I say to him, “Take off your collar” and he says he won’t so I tell him he’s going to get it anyway and that is why I leave and why I can’t get a job and why my parents won’t let me back in the house. She’s rough. I tell you.

So in France I was a despatch rider going around on my motorcycle and this day I had just picked up a despatch and I was going back and this German gun, an 88, the crew had sneaked it in behind us during the night or maybe she’s been hidden there, see, and just as I come along they fire and kill one of our tanks and I get this steel in my chest. Torn all to pieces.

There are 44 inches of silver wire in me, holding my chest together. All inside. I’m not in one piece when, they carried me in and I’ve lost all this skin, my legs, my chest, and as I go in they look at me and they’re carrying some guy out and my doctor says to the other, “Is that one dead?” and he says yes, so he tells them to bring the dead guy back. see. They take the skin off of him and slap it on me or however they do it; and with saws and knives and all that wire, they fix me up and I spend nine months in the hospital and now I’m pretty good. Except in the cold. When it’s cold I feel it. and by Jesus I really do. I have to have special underwear. The only reason I’m alive today is because of those doctors and because I was 17 and. by Jesus. I was tough.

VE DAY: I’ll never forget VE Day. It was the most vivid thing. We were in Victoria. We w'ere just kids.

The whole place just went crazy. You wouldn’t believe it. We heard about it and everybody in our school cut classes, even the teachers cut classes, and it was just kissing and hugging and screaming, bands and parades and people just going up and down the streets, and just absolutely mad and there was no such thing as time or not knowing somebody and you hugged everybody you met and sang and there w'ere sailors and soldiers with bottles of rum and men from the shipyards with cases of beer and everybody just was drinking everywhere and fellows climbing lamp posts and going through the downtown streets singing and laughing and nobody was throwing things or anything and the police just stood by and let people have a good time and you hugged a sailor or a sol-

dier or a shipyard worker and they had a band playing Roll Om The Barrel and other war songs and this must have gone on for hours but nobody got tired, not that I know of. and people were singing and shouting just as hard as when the first whistles blew until it got dark that night.

I SHOOK HER HAND: I don’t know if everybody expected us to be only 85 pounds and be wearing rags but when we came back to Canada they treated us like we were in cotton batting. They meant well, and I guess it was right that w'e should be grateful. Think of it, not everybody had spent one-sixth of their life in a Japanese prison camp. I was 20 w hen Hong Kong was captured and I was 24 when we got home.

Everything was a blur. I mean that. We didn’t eat much but potato soup with some fish in it. be we stole more than our share of rice, and the Americans who first had us looked after us pretty well, so when I got home I was in pretty fair shape. Except I was very nervous and I would cry sometimes over little things, and I didn’t know what was happening. Canada w'as a changed place.

What I should be telling you now, if I can, is that I had a w ife, too, but I didn’t know' what she looked like. I mean I w'asn’t sure. The Japs had taken away our wallets and things and w'hen I got mine back, or maybe it was my pay book, her picture was gone. Her name was Mary. We’d had a few' dates. I couldn’t afford much. We’d go bow ling, five pins, and then have a Denver sandwich and then I’d walk her to her boardinghouse and that would be it. Three weeks before I went to Hong Kong we got married, and I was afraid I wouldn’t know what she looked like. I don’t think my brain was working all that well.

I can’t remember much about the station. There were a lot of people moving around and then, just like that, I hear this voice say, “Hello, Johnny.” I turn around and there she is, and it’s not the girl I thought it would be, because I honestly couldn’t remember.

You know what I did? I’m not kidding. I shook her hand. Like that, I shook her hand. She was a little thing.

I remember her saying. “C’mon, Johnny, we’re going home. Have you got your bag?” and I had a little bag and I picked it up and walked out. It was October. The sun was shining. I remember that. About eleven in the morning. I could stretch this out and tell you other things, but all I remember is, I was crying and a taxi guy jumps out and opens the door and we get in.

It was just a short trip, a few blocks. She just held my hand, and I must have just held hers and wiped my eyes with the other, wit Fa hankie, and then we got out at the Garrick Hotel. I don’t know if it’s still there but it w'as a funny little place and she said. “Here’s home for now7, Johnny,” and I got out and I remember w hen we were walking up the first flight of stairs the taxi driver comes charging up and he’s got my bag. I’d left it. There was nothing in it anyway. I had nothing, just army stuff. Not even a gift. When he got to us. he held out the bag to Mary and he squeezed my arm. right here where the muscle is, and he said. “Everything’s gonna be fine. You wait and see.” I’ll always remember that guy.

We got to the room, just an ordinary hotel room in an ordinary hotel, you might say. It wasn’t even a good room. A two-dollar room, I’d say. I did some dumb things, like going to the dusty window and making noughts-and-crosses in the dust, playing a game w7ith myself. I asked her how her dad was and she said fine.

I sat down on the bed and she went to her bag and brought out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label. Never forget it. She held it up and said. “You’re home, Johnny. Johnny’s home,” and I got up and hugged her. That was the first time. I think, honestly think thaï that was when she just started to get through to me.

I poured myself a drink and one for Mary and another and another and in about an hour we had finished the bottle. I mean I had. She had a couple, maybe three. Then I took off my tunic and lay down on the bed and zonk, that was it. Out. Before I went under I saw Mary taking off her blouse and her little skirt and she lay down beside me and she held me.

That was the start of my coming back to the world. I can’t put it any other way. It took a long time and I was terrified a lot. but that was the start and that was it. The start, ff